Past the traffic snarls for the Queensboro Bridge, the graffiti-strewn buildings of Jackson Avenue, and a stone’s throw from the timeless Court Square Diner sits the unofficial arts oasis of the 2013 Tribeca International Film Festival (TIFF).
The first thing visitors to MoMA PS1 in Long Island City see once they pass the admissions counter is the VW Dome, a white canvas structure rising solo above the museum’s industrial courtyard. The VW Dome (thankfully free of any VW product placement) is intentionally stark and true to its concrete and gravel surroundings. The surprising structure encloses one of TIFF’s most interesting projects, presented in collaboration with MoMA.
The transformation occurs when one steps inside the dome into an interactive hive created by the Italian artist Michelangelo Frammartino, an immersive experience completed by a massive screen and speaker system.
“Alberi” (“Trees”) is a repeating cinematic loop, 28 minutes in length, recreating the story of Romito, the mythical tree man of Southern Italy who roams the lush woods. The mis-en-scène features some 100 villagers who reenact the Romito story by putting on elaborate folkloric costumes and transforming their village square into a lush forest.
Rituals that are centuries old regain their vitality via a digitally shot, transmedia installation that’s ultramodern in its presentation yet traditional in its content. Men of leaves and grass walk across the screen while sound designer Ansgar Frerich captures the sounds of rural life and the cycles of seasons. The beauty is evident and palpable.
“Alberi” is equal parts landscape movie, culture documentary, and experimental film, and unfolds with the easy rhythm of everyday village life. There’s no bold sense of beginning or end to the movie. You enter the VW Dome at any time, recline on a low sofa or floor pillows, begin the interaction, and allow the movie to grab hold of your senses.
The installation is open to all MoMA PS1 visitors through April 27, whether they’re Tribeca Film fans or not. It’s a worthy companion, if only temporarily, to the long-term installations by Richard Serra and James Turrell at the museum.
From the first moment one enters the dome and becomes immersed in “Alberi,” the cinematic installation easily becomes the most tranquil of all the Tribeca Film Festival locations and worlds apart from sold-out screenings at Manhattan multiplexes, invite-only parties atop the Trump SoHo New York, and showbiz meetings at the Greenwich Hotel.
It’s April 18 and Michelangelo Frammartino, 45, sits alone on a bench in one of the MoMA PS1 classrooms with a direct view of the VW Dome.
A small handful of journalists gather at the festival’s opening day to experience “Alberi” and speak to Frammartino. While the group may lack scale, it makes up for it in excitement. The 45-year-old artist is dressed casually, at least by Italian fashion standards, and speaks deliberately in English with the occasional aid of a translator.
“For me, it is very intimate when there is a strong connection between you and the image,” Frammartino says matter-of-factly. “And the space that holds the image is very interesting to me. You are in the space and you are deeply connected to the image. This is very important to me because I’m Italian and in my country you only receive images in the subway station or at home. You stay there and watch and there is a connection. Here there is a connection, which means you are involved. You can change spots where you sit, which changes the sound. You can decide to leave the space, which means it’s finished when you want it to be.”
Other Frammartino films like “Casa delle belle addormentate,” the feature-length “Il Dono,” and “Le Quattro Volte” have played at festivals, art-house cinemas, and galleries. But “Alberi” at MoMA PS1 takes his work to new heights of spectacle, in addition to being his first film shot digitally.
At first viewing, “Alberi” may seem like a creative reach for Frammartino, a former architecture student at Politecnico di Milano — even for someone who stepped away from the designing buildings to focus on photography, video, and film after studying the latter at Civica Scuola del Cinema.
Yet, the way Frammartino describes his creative focus, he says “Alberi” captures his ongoing fascination with the architecture of time.
“When I was studying architecture, what touched me was not the special dimensions but the time dimension,” he adds. “When you are an architect, you build a building now, but 10 years later, 20 years later, someone will be living in it and that person can mold it into something else. So I want to build something that is not static and can change. So I started working on this time dimension. In cinema, I shoot my movie and ten years later it’s still alive… When I was at school, other students were more interested in space but I was always more interested in time.”
Frammartino is something of an arts innovator, a cultural disruptor. One might even call him an “authentic” futurist, having won a prize in 2002 for making a short film with a cell phone, mixing digital media long before it become popular.
Recent photo exhibitions by French photographer Charles Fréger focus on the strange and exotic nature of folk costumes, but Frammartino uniquely emphasizes the community and everyday ritual surrounding these traditions. His take allows “Alberi” to be more evocative in its storytelling about ancient pagan rites, celebrations of winter solstice and the arrival of spring.
There are strong efforts underway to break down the walls of media, performance, and cinema throughout the Tribeca Festival but Frammartino achieves it naturally by means of art, technology, and philosophical inspiration. He also plans to make “Alberi” sustainable by reinstalling it at other museums around the world, introducing it as a film festival entry, and making a Blu-ray edition that starts at a different scene every time the disc is played.
As a result, he achieves the near-impossible: a holistic recreation of nature, everyday rural life, and the Italian countryside in the industrial setting of Long Island City. At a major film festival and companion interactive program that offers a comprehensive slate of art movies and digital media projects, Frammartino’s “Alberi” still rises above the skyline and stands out as a one-of-a-kind experience.
Alberi continues through April 27 at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens).